Shannon Huffman Polson told the crowd at Thursday's 116th annual Chamber Southwest Louisiana banquet that owning her story was key in silencing those who told her she would never fly an attack aircraft.
Polson became one of the first women to fly Apache combat helicopters in the U.S. Army. She is the founder and CEO of the Grit Institute — which offers leadership-building courses — and the author of the upcoming book "The Grit Project."
Leaders are created by the story that matters the most to them, Polson said. She said her passion for service was her main driver in life.
Polson graduated with an English degree from Duke University and served in the ROTC. She later graduated with honors from the Army's Aviation Officer Basic Course and Initial Entry Rotary Wing Course at Fort Rucker, Ala.
At 23, despite being the only woman out of 120 combat pilots at Fort Bragg, N.C., Polson said she was told she would be married by 25. Had she let someone else dictate her story at any point, Polson said she would have stopped in place.
"I had to make the decision every time that I was going to own my own story," she said.
She told the crowd to never let go of their core purpose once they connect to it.
"Put it in the crosshairs and never take your eyes off of it," Polson said. "That's how you can find grit."
Grit, Polson said, can be found in everyone.
"It's not something only for military pilots or mountain climbers," she said. "It's easiest to find at that intersection of your core purpose and your passion."
Listening is the most critical, and often untrained, leadership skill, Polson said.
"Leadership is never about the leader," she said. "It's about taking care of your people."
It is possible, however, to listen too much, according to Polson. From text messages to deadlines, people are "constantly bombarded with information and signals," she said.
"Each one of you are in your own cockpits," she said. "There are times in order to stay focused on that core purpose, you have to be willing to reach over and turn down the noise."
Earlier in the evening, Ryan Navarre received this year's Civic Service Award. Jennifer Spees with Louisiana Mortgage Associates received the Volunteer of the Year Award.